Visa International may be planning a retreat from the home banking business as major technology companies move into the market.
There is growing support among Visa's board of directors for selling or finding an industry partner for Visa Interactive, the alternative delivery unit founded in 1994, home banking sources said.
Such a move would underscore how difficult it is to compete against giant technology firms like IBM, which entered the home bank business through a joint-venture last year.
Though Visa Interactive has signed about 90 bank customers, its growth has slowed in recent months, and the unit has seen the departure of several key executives.
A spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based card association said the business is currently not for sale. Another spokesman acknowledged that Visa is "talking with a number of players in the industry, looking for strategic tie-ins and alliances of any kind."
The activity is "business as usual," the spokesman added.
But according to several observers, two factors are pushing Visa's board to consider a deemphasis of home banking.
First, increased competition has made it more costly to be in the business. Visa members may be better served if the card association concentrates its resources on its core credit card activities, observers said.
"Their charter is not to solve the problem of retail banking," said Gary Meshell, director of Price Waterhouse's financial services industry consulting practice. "They don't have to be burdened with the bigger view."
Second, several banks represented on Visa's board are part of Integrion, an influential home banking consortium owned by IBM and 16 major banks.
By scaling back or selling Visa Interactive, the card association would allow these banks to focus their attention on Integrion, which is in the beginning stages of operation.
Indeed, several observers mentioned Integrion as a potential partner or buyer for Visa Interactive. Few details about a potential merger between the two companies could be learned.
"It would make sense for Integrion to work with the Visa Interactive platform" in designing a bill payment system, said Edgar D. Brown, a senior vice president with First Union Corp. First Union, a major supporter of Visa Interactive, has not been informed of a potential sale, Mr. Brown said.
Other signs that Visa may be changing its approach to the home banking business include the recent departures of some of Visa Interactive's top executives.
Wesley Tallman, chief executive officer of Visa Interactive and president of Visa's products and systems development, resigned unexpectedly last Thursday. And seven months ago, the unit's president, D. Fraser Bullock, and a senior vice president, Brent W. Robinson, departed for other jobs within Visa. Both have since left the company.
Visa Interactive was founded two-and-a-half years ago and positioned as a bank-run alternative to the home banking offerings of Microsoft Corp. and Intuit Inc.
To establish the unit, Visa acquired the bill payment software business of U.S. Order, a company now known as Intelidata. It then launched a range of automated bill payment services, including one now in testing, that would let billers transmit invoices to consumers who would make electronic payments.
Despite rounding up close to 90 bank customers, Visa Interactive's systems have yet to gain the consumer acceptance necessary to give it real momentum, observers said. Only about 60,000 consumers use the system.
A Visa retreat from remote banking would not be unprecedented. MasterCard International has all but abandoned its own home banking program, MasterBanking.
Even if Visa pulls back from home banking, Visa Interactive would not have been in vain, some said. Its presence in the market has forced other home banking providers to be more bank-friendly, said Mr. Bullock, its former president.
But others said if Visa pulls back, it would have missed a major opportunity.
"Visa could have been Integrion-bank-owned, bank-controlled, and bank- branded-but it didn't deliver," said David Weisman of Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass. "Now it is someone else's turn to step up to the plate."